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Too little too late? Will hydrogen fuel cell cars ever be able to catch on?

Mercedes Benz F Cell left side
Image used with permission by copyright holder

We’ve been reporting on hydrogen fuel cell cars and the recent developments surrounding the various technologies behind the alternative fuel for some time now. From cost-cutting breakthroughs in the catalysts that help generate power to the removal of carbon monoxide from the energy conversion process, hydrogen is making big leaps forward as an energy source. But will it ever make to the mainstream?

As I looked back at all the gains hydrogen has made this year, I realized the technology still seemed distant, immaterial and problematic. Despite my feelings, though, hydrogen is very much a real alternative to traditional liquid fossil fuels. In fact, there are hundreds of hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars on the road across the globe and many of them are now in California. What’s it like, I wondered, to drive these cars? So Digital Trends Car section editor, Bill Roberson, and I went down to Torrance, California to find out.

We agreed to meet representative of the California Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership at a Shell Hydrogen Fueling station. After a short tour of the facilities, we were introduced to three hydrogen fuel cell cars: The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, the Toyota HCFV-adv, and the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell.

How a hydrogen fuel cell system works – plus lingo!

First off, it’s important to understand how a hydrogen-powered car works. Hydrogen is a naturally occurring gas that is plentiful throughout the universe but is a bit tough to make in quantity. It can be made from water using electrolysis and it can also be derived in large amounts from natural gas. Beyond that, there are other sources as well and hydrogen production is a big business.

Fuel cell technology is nothing new, it’s been used by NASA and other space programs for decades…

While some early hydrogen test cars worked in much the same way a gas-powered car worked – by pumping hydrogen into the engine to be burned just like gasoline – that approach has been largely abandoned for a “fuel cell” strategy. Also, the people working with and making the hydrogen cars commonly call them “H2 cars” after the periodic table vernacular for hydrogen (H2).

Essentially, the gasoline engines in the H2 cars has been replaced by a hydrogen-fueled fuel cell. Fuel cell technology is nothing new, it’s been used by NASA and other space programs for decades to reliably power spacecraft. A fuel cell is essentially a box full of thin membranes that uses a chemical reaction between hydrogen, oxygen (from the air) and a catalyst – often platinum –  to generate electricity. The fuel cell itself is often referred to by engineers and those working with the cars as “the stack” since a fuel cell’s construction involves stacking the layers of the fuel cell together. A larger stack generates more power.

There are no moving parts in a fuel cell and the byproduct, conveniently, is pure water (H2O) in the form of water vapor. Electricity generated by the fuel cell is transferred directly to an electric motor in the car’s drivetrain as needed or to an onboard battery for storage.

As you drive a hydrogen fuel-cell car, the gas pedal – an apt term here – regulates how much fuel goes into the fuel cell and how much power is sent to the motor driving the car. Operation of the car is exactly the same as driving a gas-powered car – except it behaves more like an electric car with a more quiet and smoother ride.

Diagram of a Proton exchange membrane fuel cell
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The hydrogen is stored in the vehicle under pressure in a storage tank. Gassing up the car is similar to getting regular gas except the nozzle connection is pressurized. Filling up takes about as much time as getting regular gas. A gas gauge in the car keeps tabs on the fuel supply per normal.

The whole adventure with the H2 cars was informative and entertaining and we walked away with a new understanding of the present and future state of hydrogen fuel cell cars, as well as the challenges facing what could be a revolution or major evolution of the fueling structure for cars and other vehicles. Here are some answers to many questions/comments/concerns posted by you, the readers, over the last several months in related articles about hydrogen vehicles.

Although they could be, hydrogen cars will likely never be powered by internal combustion engines

Despite what some might think or hope, future hydrogen cars will not power production vehicles through internal combustion similar to a gasoline engine. Yes, there were early hydrogen cars that were powered by hydrogen that was burned in an engine but those experiments proved an imperfect and ultimately inefficient way to use the energy potential of hydrogen. However, the same might not be said for aircraft.

Gasoline engines are extremely inefficient and most of the energy they create is lost to heat and friction. Electric and fuel cell cars send a much higher percentage of the energy they use towards making forward progress. As in a regular gas engine, much of the energy in the early hydrogen-fueled combustion engine was lost as heat and there’s no easy or economical way to overcome that obstacle. So researchers and drive train designers rejected direct burning of hydrogen in an engine and turned to fuel cells.

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell right side
Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Image used with permission by copyright holder

The fuel cell experts assured us that all future hydrogen cars would be powered through fuel-cell-generated electricity. Furthermore, each representative said they essentially wanted their fuel-cell cars to be as “familiar” in operation to drivers as a gas-powered car, and they all pretty much hit the mark. Outside of the lack of any engine vibration, reduced noise and overall seamless nature of the driving experience, it was hard to tell there was anything special about the three H2 cars we drove.

Even looking under the hood, the fuel cells all looked “finished,” production-ready, not kit-like or the product of extensive modification. But there were no dipsticks or spark plugs to check.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are not more dangerous in crashes

Hydrogen has a bit of a bad reputation dating back over 70 years due to a spectacular disaster involving a hydrogen-filled airship. Since then, hydrogen has been a fringe fuel both due to its explosive nature and energy-intensive manufacturing process.

Gil Castillo of Hyundai cleverly pointed out that although the Tucson Fuel Cell is designed with safety in mind with plenty of crash structures and emergency shut-off systems, we should not forget that gasoline is itself a very volatile fuel. People are comfortable driving around with a 25-gallon tank of gasoline onboard their car. They, too, should be equally comfortable with a big tank of hydrogen, as it poses no extra danger.

We decided not to put this safety aspect to the test, however.

Turning natural gas into hydrogen to power a fuel cell car truly is the most efficient use of natural gas

Jackie Birdsall, an engineer with Toyota who helped design their fuel cell car, told us of a three-phase efficiency study performed by Toyota in Japan wherein natural gas (CNG) was used to power a car directly by putting it into the engine like gasoline (which is common). The gas was also burned to create electricity that then powered an EV and lastly, it was turned into hydrogen and then used to power a fuel cell car. The result: the hydrogen fuel cell approach was the cleanest and most energy efficient use of natural gas to power a car.

If developed, hydrogen fuel cell cars could soon be just as robust and long-lasting as gasoline-powered cars – if not more so. There are fewer moving parts, the design is simplified and the cars already have a range the meets or exceeds most gas-powered cars on average. 

The Mercedes F-Cell vehicles currently being driven Mercedes lease customers today were designed to operate for 2,000 hours – around 60,000 miles. Next-gen Mercedes fuel cell cars, however, will be rated at 6,000-8,000 operating hours – the same as a gasoline-powered car. Mercedes has taken what they’ve learned from the F-Cell and has turned that into a much longer living powertrain. Also, when it comes time to replace a fuel cell, they are highly modular so that could be done more easily than a repair on a gasoline engine.

The H2 cars are so good, they’re boring, which is a compliment

As you can see in the video, we talked to engineers, the vehicle representatives and we drove the cars themselves. While we’d like to report driving the cars was a eye-widening and consciousness-altering experience, in truth each car drove “normally” with decent acceleration and really, no surprises at all. If we had not been told we were in a fuel cell car, it would have been tough to tell otherwise outside of the electric-car like qualities of smoothness and quiet.

But each automaker said that was indeed their mission: to make the H2 cars so “normalized” that outside of a slightly different procedure to fuel them at the gas station, there’s almost no difference in the driving experience for consumers.

The potential of hydrogen

Ultimately, we were hugely impressed with the hydrogen fuel cell cars we drove. The fuel cell cars – as the automaker representatives pointed out – offered a truly “normal” driving experience. Arguably, the three cars were a bit slow to accelerate compared to modern gasoline and electric vehicles but will surely become peppier as fuel cell stack technology improves.

It became abundantly clear that the drivetrain technology is not only clean, efficient, and hardy, it’s also here to stay. As Bill and I see it, hydrogen fuel cell cars are only held back by one thing and it’s the same problem electric car owners currently face: a lack of fueling infrastructure.

What will it take to push hydrogen cars to the forefront…

Automakers are ready to sell mass-market fuel cell cars but without a matching fueling infrastructure to support them, few customers will want take the fuel cell leap. However, just like there is a push to place electric car chargers in many cities, the hydrogen infrastructure issue is quickly changing as Shell and other fuel companies are hard at work developing ways to create a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure virtually overnight. In California, efforts are under way to construct 100 hydrogen stations in the state in the short term.

Also, as seen in this story and video, it doesn’t take much to put a basic hydrogen station into operation. While having a dedicated gas line running to the station would be the most ideal scenario, trucking the gas to each station much like gasoline is moved around now is also plausible. Hydrogen conversion, transportation and fueling could also be done at traditional gas stations – provided oil and gas companies decide to push the effort forward. That will require a profit incentive, so if and when that might happen outside of government-backed efforts remains to be seen.

Hydrogen is also a brilliant alternative fuel because it can be abundantly created from domestic sources of natural gas, contributing to energy independence in the U.S. and other countries with natural gas reserves, which appear to be more more abundant than known liquid oil deposits. Knowing this, the U.S. Department of Energy has started the H2USA program which Ford, Mercedes Benz, Toyota and Honda have signed onto, along with numerous other automakers.

Fuel cell technology is also highly scalable. Need more power? Build a larger fuel cell. On the campus of Toyota’s facility in Torrance, a 1.1 megawatt fuel cell the size of a semi trailer creates energy used in the buildings nearby. It doesn’t power the entire campus, but scaled up, it could. Conversely, fuel cells can also be very tiny – small enough to power a cell phone or other small electronics for an extended period of time. And again, with no moving parts, they are highly reliable.

And the problems

But hydrogen-powered vehicles are not without their detractors, including high-profile opposition figures such as Tesla electric car founder Elon Musk, who has called H2 cars “stupid” and said they “suck.”  In Europe, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has said hydrogen cars are not viable due to their cost. Fuel cells are not exactly cheap to build, but economies of scale and advances in materials could eventually bring the cost down.

Toyota HCFV-adv
Toyota HCFV-adv Image used with permission by copyright holder

But the main roadblock for hydrogen vehicles is finding a place to gas up. Until that issue is solved, we can expect the proliferation of hydrogen cars to continue on a small scale.

And as electric and hybrid vehicles ride an increasing wave of popularity, we wonder if hydrogen-powered cars, which draw their fuel from natural gas, a not-so-distant cousin of liquid fuel, are too little too late and on the wrong side of fuel technology in the grand scope of the changes underway in vehicle propulsion. Will purely electric cars mature at a fast enough rate, extend their ranges and shorten charge/battery swap times to a point where fueling with hydrogen is a moot point? Can H2 cars ever overcome the lead hybrids already have in the marketplace, with their EV-like driving experience combined with the built-in capability to use the existing and convenient liquid fuel infrastructure?

What will it take to push hydrogen cars to the forefront, besides a miracle in fueling infrastructure or a sudden spike in gas prices that makes driving with gasoline too much of a financial burden? Hydrogen fuel cell technology is proven, clean, reliable and scalable. But is that enough to make it viable as part of our overall and entrenched fueling matrix?

What do you think of the future of hydrogen-powered cars? Leave a comment below.

Bill Roberson contributed to this story. Photos by Nick Jaynes and Bill Roberson. 

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Nick Jaynes
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Nick Jaynes is the Automotive Editor for Digital Trends. He developed a passion for writing about cars working his way…
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